Morris and the Gardens of Spring

I find myself often looking for ways to bridge the gap between literature and daily life, between the vivid world of Victorian fiction and the often prosaic realities of lived experience.  One of the reasons that I am drawn to Morris’s work is because his writings are so deeply invested in the materiality of day-to-day living.  Accordingly, when, last summer, I became the owner of a new-to-me but old home in the Philadelphia suburbs, I found myself turning to Morris for inspiration and advice, particularly with regards to the garden.  The home came to us with three dead shrubs, an expanse of weed-filled dirt, and little else by way of landscaping.  I have never had occasion to design, plant, or tend a garden before (city living = potted plants), and of all the many projects that need to be done, the one I have found perhaps most daunting is the project of creating a garden from scratch. 
Discussions of Morris’s environmentalism have, quite rightly, most often focused on connections between his views on socialism and his views on the relationship between humans and their environs.  Yet, I found myself increasingly invested in the smaller, personal side of his approach to nature. What might Morris teach me about creating my own small garden? 
Kelmscott Manor
Morris believed that gardens should reflect the fact that they are cultivated and created by human hands.  In his 1879 lecture “Making the Best of It,” he writes that a garden “should look both orderly and rich…It should by no means imitate either the willfulness or wildness of Nature, but should look like a thing never to be seen except near a house.  It should in fact look like part of a house.”  Initially, the idea of an “orderly” garden felt a bit controlling – why shouldn’t my garden reflect the natural world? Yet, the more I dig and rake, the more that order seems to reflect not control, but care and engagement.  Insofar as the natural world is our truest home, Morris suggests that we treat it with the same thoughtfulness that we extend to our built environment.  In The Quest, he writes that a garden should function as “clothing” for a home, a part of the structure which it surrounds: “The garden, divided by old clipped yew hedges, is quite unaffected and very pleasant, and looks in fact as if it were a part of the house, yet at least the clothes of it: which I think ought to be the aim of the layer-out of a garden.”   
The idea of the garden as an extension of a home has helped me to think about garden spaces not just as decoration, or even just as extra living space, though of course they function as both, but rather as a sign of the importance of cultivating and maintaining the exterior world.  In Morris’s vision, the garden becomes a symbol of a healthy relationship between the individual and the environment, a symbol of the environment not simply as something “over there” (to use a phrase from Timothy Morton), set apart from the human world, but as something that is home and that actively needs tending.  In News from Nowhere, Morris envisions the environment as a garden “where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt.”  As Clara points out, in the industrial nineteenth century, the mistake humans made was “always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate — ‘nature,’ as people used to call it — as one thing, and mankind as another.”  In thinking of humans and nature as separate, she argues, “it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them.”  We may still often perceive nature as something “outside” ourselves, but as we become increasingly aware of climate change and more comfortable with notions like the “Anthropocene,” we no longer see ourselves as being “outside” of nature.  For Morris, the garden is a reminder of that reciprocal relationship.  His vision of the environment as a garden enables us to think of our habitat as something which requires human labor and care – we are never simply passive inhabitants of our environs.   
Kelmscott Manor
With Morris in mind, I have begun the process of “dressing” our house in our new garden.  The dead shrubbery has been cleared and fresh soil put down.  It still doesn’t look like much, but as I weed and water, I am encouraged by the prospect that if I invest myself in the project of tending this spot of land, one day my garden might come to look like an “orderly and rich” part of our home.      
Jill Duchess of Hamilton, Penny Hart, and John Simmons. The Gardens of William Morris. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998.
Timothy Morton. Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Kate Neilsen, Boston University

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.